Last Sunday, I was having so much fun going through Mom’s old writing books that I promised a couple more posts on the subject…forgetting that I was going to be out of town until the end of Wiscon. So you’ll have to wait a week for me to talk about the changes in the way folks talk about writing.
In the meantime… Back when I was doing literacy tutoring, one of the training classes they sent us to was about learning styles. They divided them up into three: visual, aural, and kinesthetic (that is, people who learn most easily by seeing an example or reading, people who learn most readily when they are told how to do something, and people who learn best when they actually do it themselves). This has lots of implications for education (our current system is heavily biased toward the first two learning styles), but what I want to talk about is the implications for writers and readers.
Reading is fundamentally a visual experience. Yes, there are audiobooks, but most readers are readers, not listeners…and most books meant for persons over the age of five or six are not written to be read aloud. Nevertheless, there seem to be at least two common types of readers: those who “see” the story as a movie in their heads, and those who “hear” the story in their heads as if someone were reading it. There are also the rare types who “feel” the story as they read it – who lean forward and tense up when the protagonist is running or jumping, and sometimes even fall off the chair if they’ve become too involved in the action.
Ideally, one would like to write stories that appeal to all three types of readers (and however many other categories are out there). The difficulty begins with realizing that this is something one needs to pay attention to. After all, every writer has his or her own learning and reading style, and it is only natural that one begins by writing in whatever way “feels right” to oneself. Reading is also generally a solitary experience, and the way we talk about the things we’ve read seldom gives much of a clue about the differences in how we experience it. “I loved the chase scene in Chapter 9!” may mean “I could visualize the horses galloping through the forest and the branches whipping past” or it may mean “I loved the way the words had the rhythm of hoofbeats and the sentences flowed into one another” or even “I could fell the wind in my hair and I was so into the ride that I kicked the footstool over when they jumped the river.”
If one doesn’t realize (or doesn’t believe) that other people don’t experience “reading a story” the same way one does oneself, one has no reason to suspect that some readers will trip over the clunky sentence fragments in that visually evocative section, or bog down and lose track of the story in a long flow of beautiful but slow-moving prose. I recall one writer friend who was mildly horrified to discover that there were readers who actually cared about “pretty sentences,” rather than about the mental images they produced, and another who was even more horrified to learn that not everyone stops to figure out exactly how to pronounce each and every alien name in an SF novel (because if you don’t know how to pronounce them, how can you tell what the rhythm of the sentence it’s in is supposed to be?)
I think that when any one person reads a story, they translate it from words-on-the-page into whatever their preferred mode of understanding is. In order to write a story, the process goes in reverse, translating the “mental pictures” or the “inner storyteller” into words-on-the-page. (This is one of the reasons why it’s never quite the story in your head.) If one wants to appeal to more than one type of reader, one’s translation into words-on-the-page has to end up with something that each type of reader will be able to “translate” from words-on-the-page into their particular most-valued way of experiencing the book.
Most of the writers I know do this kind of thing more or less by instinct. They lean towards “mental pictures” or “inner storytelling” or “reproducing the physical sensations,” but they’ve found ways of writing that also appeal to other sorts of readers. The writer who is all about mental movies learns to write sentences that are, if not rhythmic and flowing, at least not clunky. The writer who is all about poetic rhythm learns to include some visually evocative phrases. I’ve only known one or two writers who were so far into one mode or other that they had to consciously and deliberately work on acquiring the others in order to get any other styles into their work. Most of the rest of us pick up enough to get by without thinking about it.
“Getting by,” however, is not the ideal. I think an awful lot of writers could benefit from thinking about the reading/writing styles that don’t come naturally to them. Yes, it’s a lot of work to stop and think about the rhythm of the sentences, the word choices, and the flow of the syntax, when what really matters to you is the vivid mental images you’re trying to evoke. Yes, it’s hard to pull back and look at the “big picture” effect that all those lovely sentences add up to. Yes, it feels a bit strange to make yourself physically feel the tensions and the motion in the story. But even if one doesn’t make a regular habit of it, pausing every so often to think about the effects your words-on-the-page will have when they’re filtered through a different style of reading.